BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Staff Sgt. Rico Rawls still walks with a limp from the injury he suffered after a close encounter with a roadside bomb during his 2003 deployment to Iraq.
Rawls completed that tour with the Baumholder-based 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry and then completed another tour with a Fort Riley, Kan., unit before getting reassigned to Baumholder.
“I just toughed it out as a soldier,” said Rawls of his multiple deployments.
But with the injury to his right leg still plaguing him, another tour in Iraq just wasn’t possible. Nor is his ability to remain a soldier, Rawls said.
Now, Rawls is a member of a new Army unit — the Warrior Transition Unit — which became operational in Baumholder last week. WTUs, conceived after revelations earlier this year of substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, are aimed at helping soldiers recuperate and, if necessary, prepare for a return to the civilian world.
“It’s like a pot of gold,” said Rawls, who intends to remain in Baumholder as an Army civilian worker. “I’m able to just focus on getting better.”
Staff Sgt. Shawn Ertl, squad leader of the Baumholder WTU, said the program takes into account all of a soldier’s needs.
“The main mission is for them to heal,” Ertl said. “But we’re not sending them out there without any plans, no guidance.”
Career counseling is part of the program, he said.
For Pfc. Michael Fenn, also assigned to the Baumholder WTU, an injury from a car accident is forcing him out of the Army. While Fenn was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, balancing health problems with soldiering wasn’t possible, he said.
“That’s why this [WTU] helps,” Fenn said.
After the Army, Fenn intends to get a job with the Army Corps of Engineers in his home state of Alabama.
Ginalyn Cowles, an employment specialist at Army Community Services, works with the WTU soldiers, helping them learn about all the available programs, from health care to financial and career planning. Cowles also is serving as the interim “soldier and family assistant center specialist,” a newly established position dedicated to WTU needs.
“The biggest thing is making sure they are planning for the future. Everyone is an individual and has individual needs,” Cowles said. “We’re looking to do right by these soldiers.”
Throughout U.S. Army Europe, WTUs are now becoming operational, Ertl said.
In a couple of weeks, a dozen or so additional Baumholder soldiers will be joining the three already assigned to the unit, he said.
Baumholder’s WTU now has its own office space at the local health clinic as well as barracks building for the soldiers. When the unit launched on Sept. 26, the WTU soldiers were greeted by garrison officials, health-care workers and local Army organizations at a welcoming ceremony.
“It was like a big community hug,” Rawls said. “The biggest thing was they all said if you need anything, just let us know.”